Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It was certainly a rough start to his “return home” for Denny Hamlin Friday at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, but the three-time winner at the track smiled and remained optimistic about his chances come Saturday night’s green flag.
The Joe Gibbs Racing team was hard at work on Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota from Friday’s opening practice on at the three-quarter mile Richmond track – trying to get it properly prepped for Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
By the time Hamlin faced the media Friday afternoon after practices and before qualifying he was disappointed in the day’s rough start, but remained absolutely hopeful about the race.
“Obviously, it’s super frustrating from my standpoint and it is for them [his team], too,” Hamlin said. “They don’t want to have to completely rebuild a car while they are at a race track. We are trying to figure it out. We’re trying to get between some teammates. We can get there here with some of our teammates, but we can’t on other things. I don’t know.
“It could be a really good race for us, it can also be really bad. I’m really not sure how it’s all going to turn out. I’m not sure with qualifying if it will be indicative of anything we have going on, but we’ll see how it all pans out. We’ll try everything we can to make the right decisions for tomorrow.”
The good news is Hamlin has always been good at Richmond. His three wins at the track is second only to JGR teammate Kyle Busch’s and his 1,653 laps led is tops among all his competition this weekend. And he hasn’t finished worse than sixth-place in the last five races here, including a win in September, 2016 from the Busch Pole position.
The past success along with his local ties to the area – he grew up in Chesterfield, Va., – make Richmond a place, Hamlin always looks forward to racing. And he is vastly popular in the area – holding a hugely successful short track event at nearby Langley Speedway Thursday night to raise money for charities he supports.
“We’ve been more hit and miss,” Hamlin explained. “We were competitive one race here last year and the other one, not so much. It’s really feast or famine for us here at this race track.”
Hamlin enters the race ranked a respectable eighth in the championship standings, but he hasn’t had a top-10 in the last three races. A crash at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago left him with a 34th-place finish and he was 11th at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in Monday’s rain-delayed race.
That follows an incredible season start when he scored top-five finishes in three of the first four races – including a third-place in the Daytona 500. He had top-10s in four of the first fives races.
Richmond presents exactly the kind of opportunity Hamlin wants and needs to put his season back on that title contention trajectory.
“I was really optimistic coming here that we were going to start pretty quick and the way our cars ran at Phoenix, everything is fairly similar with the cars,” Hamlin said, noting his fourth-place finish in Arizona.
“Like I said, here today was a struggle, where Phoenix was pretty easy for us. A disappointing start to our weekend, for sure, but it doesn’t hamper what we expect for tomorrow night. I’m hoping we get it all figured out and we’re competitive enough as we should be here.”
Asked about his success in the spring versus fall races at Richmond and Hamlin again smiled, acknowledging all his victories have come in the fall. He said he had no logical explanation for that, except to note that he is a driver who typically gets better as the season goes.
“I think typically I’ve been a driver who has gotten stronger as the year goes on,” he said. “That hasn’t changed for 13 or 14 years I’ve been doing this and the stats will back this up.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to perform earlier in the year, because we knew last year we didn’t collect as many bonus points for the Playoffs during the season as we needed. It’s on the radar for us.
“It’s not like we’re not trying, it’s just a tough go at it right now.”
Hamlin qualified fourth for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400.